Essentially, translation involves converting a text, originally written in one language, to another, communicating at all times the meaning of the source text as well as trying to retain as many as possible of the feelings elicited by the original text in readers who are native speakers of that language.
There are different types of translation, which can be subdivided into quite a few categories. On one hand, there is literal translation, which is the oldest type of translation and comes from the idea that every word in one language must have an equivalent in the other. This is how the Greeks and the Romans translated because it corresponded to the view of translation and to the life of philosophers such as Aristotle, Plato, etc.… At the other extreme is the idea of semiotic translation. This is the type explained by Umberto Eco in his essays about translation. Semiotic translation involves communicating something using another medium, for example if a painting inspires a work of Shakespeare, or when a traffic light is red to communicate the idea ‘Stop’.
Even so, in a more modern context, translators often opt for a less extreme technique in the way they translate, and use different types according to the context or the client for whom they are working. Coming from the idea that something is always lost in translation, according to the priorities of each job, translators have to decide what can be lost and what must be retained, and this depends on the type of text involved. If it is a text where detail is very important, as is the case in legal or medical documents, more literal translations that stick closely to the source text are used in an attempt not to lose any content from that text. However, if it is poetry or a novel, contexts in which style, elegance and art are the priorities of the original text, a slightly more fluid and artistic style can be used. Sometimes translators resign themselves to losing some details of the content of the text in order to maintain the style and to have a similar impact on readers as that of the original text.
Professional translators normally only translate into their mother tongue, a measure which aims to guarantee the quality of the translated texts produced. However, bilingual people, or those who speak a language other than their native language to a very high level, sometimes do reverse translations (into their second language).
Translation normally begins when a client contacts a translator to offer him/her a job. This contact varies quite significantly depending on whether the client is a translation agency that already has the translator’s details (rates, references, experience etc.) or an individual who wants a document translated and has found the translator’s details on one of the many Internet sites designed for this purpose (Translators Cafe, Proz, etc.). Anyway, what normally happens is that a description of the document to be translated (genre, terminology, etc.) is provided and from there, without having seen the document, the translator can start to decide whether s/he has the time, experience or specialist knowledge to be able to do the job. Furthermore, either a sample or the whole text is often sent at the same time as this initial contact so that the translator can see exactly what the job involves, although it is recommended that the translator does not start translating until the translation agency or the individual who has contacted him/her has confirmed the assignment.
In the academic as well as the professional world, it is always recommended that translators read the text in depth before beginning to translate to ensure that nothing unexpected comes up once they have started the translation. This also gives translators the opportunity to see how much repetition there is and to establish how much time they are going to need to do the job.
Although translation has traditionally been done “by hand”, like all professional writing, nowadays computers are often used to facilitate the work of translators and make their business in general more profitable. As well as the simple fact of being able to type the whole text on a computer, which makes translating and editing the document quicker and easier, technology is also used within professional translation to facilitate the work in other ways.
Firstly, with the arrival of the Internet, searching for terminology and definitions has become much easier. This makes translations more reliable, since if translators have any doubts about a phrase or a word, they can consult various sources of information to check it, as well as being able to consult other professional translators over the Internet. The amount of information available on the Internet and the speed at which it can be accessed means that, for translators, the Internet is a big advantage in the professional world.
Furthermore, around the 1980s specialist translation programmes started to be within the reach of freelance translators. These can be divided up in the following way: those that aim to make the work of the human translator superfluous (automatic translation programmes such as BabelFish or Google Translate), and those that aim to make the work of the translator more efficient, which are called CAT (Computer Assisted Translation) tools. Here we will look at the latter.
Nowadays, many translators use CAT software such as Wordfast (which can be downloaded for free from the Internet) and Trados (which has to be paid for). Translators often include their skills in using this software on their CVs so that clients know that they will translate in the most efficient, and therefore cheapest, way possible. Basically what these programmes do is split the text into segments and leave the translator to translate. From the first translation, lists are created of words that the translator has translated within certain linguistic combinations. Then when the same word or phrase is repeated, and even when the word or phrase is almost the same, the programme automatically fills in the segment so that the translator can revise it and, if everything is correct, continue translating the document. The main advantage of this is obvious; translators now do not have to translate the same word or phrase several times. This means that they can do more work in less time since, if they receive a text with lots of repetition, they only have to spend half the amount of time that they would otherwise have spent translating it. This technology has advantages for clients, since in many cases, they get their translations more quickly, and also for translators, since their profits can infinitely increase.
As has already been mentioned, translation into the translator’s mother tongue is the norm in professional translation. Having a perfect command of one’s mother tongue normally makes translation into that language much quicker. This can be seen clearly, above all, in the combination Spanish-English, since this is the combination in which translators often spend less time. However, translating so quickly also has disadvantages, and these normally occur because the translator overestimates their skills either in Spanish or in their mother tongue, or even in typing so quickly. Despite the fact that translation into one’s mother tongue is the norm, reverse translations can also be carried out. As has already been noted, this is normally reserved for bilingual people or those with very profound knowledge of the language into which they are going to translate. One of the difficulties translators face when doing a reverse translation is often the lack of familiarity with the culture of a language that is not their own. Even when translators are very familiar with the other culture, there can be references to famous people, films, historical events or television programmes that that they do know and this can make translation difficult. It can also be difficult to know how to use punctuation and how to abbreviate words in the correct way, and even whether some words which can be abbreviated in the translator’s mother tongue can also be abbreviated in the other language. For that reason, to do a reverse translation well, the ideal situation is to know the language into which you want to translate very well.
If one had to explain translation to someone who had no knowledge of learning languages, it would firstly be necessary to clarify the difference between translation and interpreting, since the majority of the population applies the same term to written and spoken language without differentiating. Often, it is also necessary to explain why one cannot simply let a computer translate everything, since many people think that technology has already advanced to the point where the human translator is superfluous. This last opinion does not have a firm basis in fact since, in spite of many attempts to create a computer that can automatically translate natural languages, it has been proven that even the most advanced programmes are only capable of successfully doing 25% of the work of a human translator. What makes automatic translation so difficult is the need for cultural knowledge and to carry out a fairly complex mental process to be able to decipher any message in any language and to solve the ambiguities that often arise. For the moment, only human translators are capable of doing this.
As has been noted throughout this essay, there are many competencies and characteristics that translators must have to be able to do a job well and to dedicate themselves exclusively to translation as a professional career. Firstly they must be well-organised since, especially to work as a freelancer, translators need to be able to divide their time between sending and replying to emails and phone calls they have received to generate work, translation itself and a certain amount of accounting to be able to effectively track the money they receive as a small business. At the level of translation itself, what is necessary is the skill to carefully monitor all the details in a text; knowledge, if possible, of many genres and technical terms to be able to take on the widest possible range of texts they are offered; and the skill to know how much work to accept at any given moment and not to overestimate their own skills.
As a result of the work of someone with the aforementioned characteristics, a good translation should read like a complete text, written with as much attention to detail (spelling and punctuation amongst other aspects) as a text originally written in the target language. Cultural elements and concepts that might not exist in the target language should be reflected adequately in the translation. (Equivalents can be sought, explanations given, footnotes used or some words can be left untranslated according to the general aims of the translation). However, the most important thing in a translation is that there are no errors of meaning. This becomes even more important is medical or legal texts in which the communication of exact details is almost the only intention of the text. This is reflected in the majority of translation exams in which, if errors of this type are detected, it is very likely that the translator will fail.
In conclusion, it remains only to say that the majority of people, whether the general public or businesses, still do not understand the translation profession very well. This is despite the fact that, in an ever-smaller world, the development of their businesses increasingly depends on the services offered by professional translators.